Why Did the Gaijin Cross the Pond?: A Tokyo Travelogue

This is going to be long-winded and self-indulgent, but please bear with me. It’s going somewhere, I promise.
In Fight Snacks

All Nippon Airways in-flight snack.

Coming up in the food industry in the late 90's every cook and chef I worked with was in love with sushi. Once I got past the initial aversion to raw fish I also contracted this fascination. They all looked at it with great reverence for the art-form, and there was a mystique surrounding it. An ethereal glow that seemed impenetrable to western cooks. It was too involved, too disciplined, too steeped in indecipherable and occult-like tradition to ever be mastered by someone not brought up deeply entrenched in the culture. It was the untouchable talent. The realm of true mastery. The Holy Grail of culinary skill-sets that no one even knew how to approach. I mean, apprentices in Japan spend their first 3 years doing nothing but WASHING THE DAMN RICE! That's all they are allowed to touch! For 3 years! Your only job is washing rice! When you've mastered that, then, and only then, will they let you move on to more complicated tasks. Like toasting nori! To learn the art and skills needed to make sushi was to devote your life to that one thing. Not unlike a monk. Constantly meditating on rice, vinegar, fish, and knife skills. This was the only way to achieve any competence. That sounded like it was too daunting and too challenging for mere mortals to undertake. Especially if you weren't Japanese. We were forced to be content watching with awe and admiration from the other side of the counter. This was, of course, almost entirely bullshit. The part about apprentices is not, though. Not entirely, anyway. If you spent 3 years washing rice, then you probably needed that amount of time to master it. Regardless of that my fascination for the subject never waned, never decreased, and I researched it extensively. I would frequently throw dinner parties and invite all of my friends throughout my 20’s, and sushi was one of the themes in the rotation. With this hunger for learning more about it I jumped at the chance to work next to a veteran sushi chef. Picking his brain of every little morsel of knowledge I could glean out of the language barrier. And then the opportunity arose for me to join his ranks. Not without a little plotting and scheming, but I was determined. This gaijin was going to do the un-fucking-thinkable! I was going to make the leap and be able to call myself a sushi chef, and I saw just how to make it happen. It went down at a casino in Detroit, of all places. A few months after opening the permanent facility for MGM Grand it was International Auto Show season in the D', and there was a request from Ford Motor Co. to have sushi available for them for the duration. The tapas bar/club we worked at, Ignite, was set up like a sushi bar already so it was a perfect fit. They brought in a guy from a local sushi bar, Jay (his Korean name is No-Houn), to run the show completely solo. I studied his every move. How he washed the rice, how his hands moved when he was making rolls, nigiri, temaki, slicing fish. How he treated every ingredient was scrutinized from a distance that allowed him to work unhindered. His presence there was so well received we kept him on and ran a menu that was split down the middle. A sushi side and an “American Tapas” side. I eventually got comfortable enough with him to start trying to ask questions and assist him, though his English was very broken and my Korean non-existent. We quickly came to a report, though, and communication was slow at times but we both had the patience and passion to make it work. Eventually the powers that were decided to shift the menu and make the whole thing a sushi menu. That meant they would need new cooks that were experienced in sushi and a position that did not exist before needed to be created because this was a specialized skill that needed to be compensated at a higher rate than even the fine-dining crew of 4 cooks that were in there at the time (that I was one of those 4). There was only going to be 2 full-time sushi cook positions available. None of the cooks in there that ran the hot menu knew how to make sushi with any kind of consistency or speed. Well, none of them but me, of course.
Flight Path

Flight path from O'Hare to Narita.

From jumping in and helping him when he needed it and picking his brain when he had the time to answer questions I was getting very good at sushi. My visual art and sculpture background really paid off here, giving me the basic manual dexterity to catch on very fast. Combined with my growing passion for the subject, my 16 years in kitchens already, and my eye for plate composition, I was coming along quickly. The day came to do a sushi menu tasting for all of the executives that had a say in this deal. I knew that Jay had a tendency to lag behind and run a little late with these sorts of things. He always did when there was a banquet event or a tasting. I was not asked by anyone, not even Jay, to assist him, but I knew he was going to fall behind, and I had a plan. His tasting was early in the shift, right before we opened, so I was in the back prepping for the hot menu service that night. I wrapped up what I needed to do and showed up out front (it was an open service kitchen that was out in the actual dining room) 20 minutes before Jay needed to have everything ready. He was behind, just as I predicted. I jumped in and helped him finish up making the rolls he needed and getting everything plated to present to the waiting audience of executives. They were there watching us from the other side of the counter. Just like I knew they would be. My plan was working perfectly. The General Manager of the whole property, the Vice President of Food and Beverage, the Executive Chef, the Executive Sous Chef, and the Banquet Chef were all watching me assist Jay in rolling sushi for the menu tasting to determine what would be included in this new menu roll-out. I never had to apply for the new position. I didn't even need to say I wanted it. It was just kind of universally understood that I was the guy they needed for the job. I communicated and worked well with Jay, I had the skill and the drive and the experience and they wouldn't have to go through any kind of lengthy search or hiring process. It was a no-brainer. With that new role I also had near complete autonomy. Jay and I were given control of the menu, save for a few things they wouldn't let me get rid of because of their popularity, regardless of the fact that sliders are completely out of place on a Japanese menu. But I digress... I started the new position in July of 2009 and the following 2 and a half years were some of the most challenging and rewarding years of my career. I buried my head even further in the study of Japanese cuisine. As I started outgrowing/getting weary of the position and its corporate politics and inefficiencies my eye wandered to Chicago. I could make a name for myself there in a way I didn't think Detroit was ready for at the time. I still hold that it wasn't ready then, but it might be now. Regardless, I moved out to the Chicago area and took a job I was a shoe-in for at a casino in the North-West 'burbs. The F&B department was going to be run by a few of the guys I worked under in Detroit so little was needed with regards to interviews and vetting. But as I quickly learned, Chicago is not the culinary dream-scape it might seem to be. At least not for a white, mid-western chef approaching 40 that had goals of making waves in the Japanese culinary world there. After staging a few times, getting woefully low offers, and botching one interview entirely, I didn’t feel like I was being taken very seriously. I was also starting to realize that if I wanted to find a home for myself I was going to have to create one. I was able to make a small kitchen no one seemed to care much about into the talk of the building back in Detroit, a town and location that at the time was culinarily unadventurous, and do something unique that attracted a following of regulars. I knew I could make that happen anywhere, if given the right opportunity. But that right opportunity wasn’t coming, despite throwing resumes at all of the top Japanese restaurants in Chicago. The problem, I felt, was that I didn’t have the background, an experience I could put on my resume that was more than a sushi bar at a casino. Casino kitchens don’t tend to be taken very seriously outside of casino kitchens. I needed a big name under my belt, I thought. I needed to be able to say I worked for a Nobu or a Morimoto, regardless of whether or not that experience was going to offer me anything in the way of growth. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m 40 now. That’s a little too old to start at the bottom of the totem pole at a new place, which is what I was facing, regardless of stunningly good performance at a stage. My girlfriend Sara suggested I do an internship in Japan. That’s an experience no one could be dismissive of and would carry a lot of weight, even if I stammered at the interview. Why the fuck not, I thought? After a lengthy search and contacting people and sorting through testimonials I was narrowing down my search. There was a place in California that offered a 6 week course, the option of doing 3 weeks interning at a restaurant in Japan. They also offered several extensions and advanced classes that would turn 2 months into 4 if all options were on order. Then there was a school with an 8 week program, the Tokyo Sushi Academy, located right in the heart of downtown Tokyo. The Shinjuku district, to be exact. Both programs cost roughly the same. The biggest difference was one was based out of California, with 3 weeks spent in Japan, and the other was 8 weeks right in the center Tokyo. The decision was not very hard. Fuck those dirty hippies and whiny socialites in Cali. That was close to 2 years ago. Planning for and saving for the trip went very well. So, as I write the end of this introduction on my laptop 6 hours into the 13 hour flight to Tokyo, I’m brimming with excitement at what is to come in the next 2 months. I already have day classes booked at another cooking school near the Tsukiji market and reservations at several of Tokyo’s top restaurants. I don’t have the coveted reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro yet, but I have a lead on it (they only take reservations by phone and they only speak Japanese, and mine is horrible). My class schedule is pretty intense, at 6 days a week, 6 hours a day, but I’m determined to make the most of it and squeeze everything I can out of Tokyo while I’m there. At the request of many, many people I will be keeping a journal/travelogue here to document this (most likely) once in a lifetime experience. Highlight photos will be included here, but to keep this from becoming almost entirely a photo album more complete photo albums will be maintained on my Facebook page. Hope you all enjoy the ride, vicarious as it is.
In Flight Meal

All Nippon Airways in-flight meal. Veggies and mackerel simmered in miso with steamed rice, fruit, pickled eggplant with edamame and sweet omelette, spinach in sesame sauce with chilled soba noodles and dipping sauce for them top center.

O jikan o itadaki, arigatogozaimasu, bitchez! I look forward to your feedback! What do you want to see? Let me know and if it's not already on my itinerary it might get added. I've got 2 months, after all! Live well and eat better. -Jack

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